Exclusive: progress being made on gender equality in the public sector but obstacles remain, Global Government Forum survey finds  

By on 20/09/2023 | Updated on 21/09/2023

Nearly 60% of officials say that progress has been made towards gender equality since they joined the public service, but barriers including childcare and insufficient mentoring opportunities are still holding back women’s careers, a Global Government Forum survey has found.  

Overall, 58% of public service respondents say they have seen significant progress towards gender equality in their organisation, while 19% say they haven’t.

Those who have spent the longest amount of time in the civil service are most likely to report having seen significant progress, with 75% of those who have been government officials for 20 years or more agreeing. This drops to 61% of those who have worked in government for between 16 and 20 years, and to 57% of those who have worked in the public sector for between 11 and 15 years.

Less than half of those who have worked in the public sector for 10 years or less report having seen progress, with one third (33%) of those who have been officials for between six and 10 years saying there has been no significant progress.

The survey – which also covers barriers to women progressing in their organisations, perceptions of gender related workplace policies and gender metric reporting – was taken by 955 public servants from more than 40 countries (though most from Canada, the UK, the US, and New Zealand) in spring 2023. The survey was undertaken ahead of the launch of GGF’s new Global Government Women’s Network, a community of women in civil and public services around the world.

Register to become a member of the Global Government Women’s Network for free here – and read more about it at the bottom of this article.

The barriers to women progressing in public service careers

Respondents were asked to what extent they agree or disagree that certain barriers to women progressing in their organisation exist.  

Respondents – 62% of whom are female and 32% are male – report that conflict with childcare obligations is the biggest barrier to women progressing in their organisation, with 33% agreeing.

A similar proportion also highlight insufficient mentorship opportunities, while over a quarter of respondents also name organisational bias (28%); insufficient networking opportunities (27%); insufficient support from management (26%); and insufficient number of female role models (25%) as factors holding back women’s careers.

Childcare and a lack of mentorship opportunities stand out as the two barriers where more respondents agree than disagree that they exist.  

Women are much more likely than men – more than twice as likely in most cases – to agree that barriers exist. For example, 49% of women see conflict with childcare obligations as a barrier, compared to 12% of men; 45% of women see insufficient mentorship opportunities as an issue, compared to 13% of men; and 32% of women see a culture that does not support gender equality and diversity as an obstacle, compared to only 2% of men.

There are also differences in the perception of barriers in different professions. Those working in digital, data and technology (DDaT) are more likely to agree barriers exist – in five of the eight examples – than those working in human resources and communication. DDaT officials are also more likely to agree that barriers exist than respondents overall.

Nearly half (47%) of those working in DDaT see conflict with childcare obligations as a barrier, while 39% see both insufficient mentorship opportunities and insufficient support from management as hurdles.  

Promoting women’s career development – perceptions of policies

The survey respondents were asked to rate four policies promoting women’s career development in their organisation: targets for female representation in senior management; public disclosure and reporting around gender diversity performance; developing pools of qualified women to draw from in succession planning; and leadership programmes exclusively for women.

Around half of respondents are unaware of leadership programmes exclusively for women or whether their organisation develops pools of qualified women to draw from in succession planning, and over a third are unaware of the other two policies.

Of these programmes, targets for female representation in senior management are most highly thought of, though only 34% of those who say such a policy exists rate it good or excellent. The other three policies are rated good or excellent by around a quarter of respondents or less.

The policies are also less well regarded by female respondents than by male. For example, 50% of male respondents rate policies in place to target female representation in senior management as good or excellent, whereas less than a quarter (24%) of women do. Likewise, 35% of men rate leadership programmes exclusively for women as good or excellent, but only 13% of women do.

Mixed picture of support mechanisms

Officials were also asked to rate the mechanisms in place to support staff with childcare; maternity and paternity leave; maternity and paternity pay; menopause; and sexual harassment at work.

Maternity and paternity pay and leave are rated highest, with 64% and 60% of respondents respectively saying their entitlements are either excellent or good. Mechanisms in place to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace came in third, with 47% rating associated policies excellent or good, followed by childcare support, at 42%.

Of the little more than a third (37%) of respondents who say there is a menopause support mechanism in place, only 13% say it is excellent or good, 7% say it is average, and 16% say it is poor or very poor.

Men rate these support policies higher than women. For example, 78% of men rate their organisation’s maternity and paternity leave as good or excellent, compared to 33% of women.

Gender metrics under reported

In the survey, we also sought to understand whether gender equality metrics are formally reported by respondents’ organisations.

While more than three-quarters (79%) of public servants say their organisation reports the proportion of women on the leadership team, significantly less than half of respondents say other elements – gender pay disparity, the proportion of female applicants to senior management positions, and employee retention by gender – are reported.

Are women considered equal?

Asked whether they agree or disagree with a range of statements regarding gender equality within their organisation, 63% of female respondents agree that men and women are considered equally when it comes to recruitment; 51% believe men and women are considered equally when it comes to opportunities for promotion within their organisation; and 45% say the number of women at leadership level equals, or near equals, the number of men – the same as the proportion who disagree.  

There is a noticeable disparity in how women within the DDaT profession view their standing, with over a third (39%) saying that women are not considered equally when it comes to opportunities for promotion within their organisation.

Impact of flexible working

Over three quarters (76%) say hybrid and flexible working arrangements are helpful for women professionally. Split respondents by gender and 81% of women agree, compared to 69% of men.

While the results of this survey highlight positives in terms of gender equality and equity in civil and public services, there is a mixed picture, with some respondents reporting that barriers to women’s progression remain, that support mechanisms aren’t always as good as they could or should be, and that gender metrics are often under reported by their organisations.

The results also show that men consistently see their organisation’s gender policies and support mechanisms more favourably than women do and are less likely to recognise barriers to women’s career development; and that women working in digital, data and technology are at a disadvantage compared with men in the same profession, as well as at a disadvantage to women in other professions within government.

About the Global Government Women’s Network

We will delve further into some of the issues raised in this survey – as well as public policy issues affecting women and girls – for the benefit of members of our new Global Government Women’s Network.

The network is a global community of women in civil and public services who can advise and support each other as they navigate their careers – underpinned by exclusive news, opinion, analysis and events and an open online forum in which members can raise topics and contribute to discussions. 

If we are to ensure that women in government enjoy the same respect, opportunities and influence afforded their male colleagues – and have an equal voice in decision-making – we need to share experiences, showcase the initiatives that have made a positive difference and inspire each other to push for change.

Click here to become a member

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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